As I have for the last two years I shall recall any good things from the popular culture that are harmonious or helpful to Catholic culture. There were many things past year and many things coming up in 2016 that are antithetical to the Gospel. But there were a few bright spots in 2015.
And as I have previously written it is not necessary to indulge a fascination with pop culture (e.g. you don’t have to Keep up the Kardashians and Kanye), but we should have some awareness of it and maybe (if it is our charism) to engage with it to make it more Christlike.
I would like to focus on the most Catholic moments in pop culture from the past year. As a teacher, I have found that using the language of modern television, movies, and the like can be very effective at illustrating all manner of theological truths.
It should be noted that any mention of positive examples from movies or television shows below is not an endorsement of the entire of the entire project. Some stories have mixed messages. Or some may be too explicit or violent. This is merely a touchstone to highlight any good moments that came out of pop culture in 2016. And feel free to disagree. But here are some points that I intend to use in the classroom.
Beware, in order to discuss the Catholicity of the movies and television shows below, SPOILERS may be introduced.
This year we had five explicitly religious movies with major stars: Risen, Ben-Hur, Miracles from Heaven, Hacksaw Ridge, and Silence. Risen is the story of a Roman centurion who is confronted with the witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus. It is an exploration of faith vs. skepticism. And while it was modestly budged at $20 million, the film made more than double that in worldwide receipts. Ben-Hur was not so lucky. With a budget of over $100 million, it did not quite make back that money in return. However, both films reportedly treated the Christ story with great respect. As did Miracles from Heaven (starring Jennifer Garner), which deals with a family’s emotional journey when the encounter a miracle that saves their daughter.
Hacksaw Ridge was the true story of Desmond T. Doss, a medic in World War II who served in the army but refused to carry a weapon. The film was very explicit in the influence of the Christian faith on Doss. And Like his other film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson mixes extreme violence in with the acts of faith to give them a harrowing context.
This year someone else who made a famous Jesus movie also returned with a religious-themed film. Martin Scorsese, director of The Last Temptation of Christ, has returned with his film Silence. It is the story of two 17th Century Jesuits who go to Japan to evangelize and investigate the reported apostasy of own of their own. And while the film uses some truly beautiful Christian imagery, the film (like the novel upon which it is based) is very controversial because of its ending. The lead character Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who also plays Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge), must choose: either renounce Christ or watch as innocent Christians are tortured in front of him. The choice Rodrigues makes will in all likelihood lead to discussions by the audience. This is no doubt Scorsese’s intent.
On TV, the most explicitly Catholic show was The Young Pope, staring Jude Law. However the portrayal of the inner workings of the fictional Vatican are more akin to the show House of Cards than to anything that should be in the house of God.
The Christ Figure
Ever since the dawn of Christianity, Jesus has been the ideal archetype for the hero. He defines what a hero is, particularly His willingness to lay down His life for the greater good.
There plenty of examples of this in movies this year, particularly in classic hero stories. SPOILERS AHEAD. In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman willingly makes the ultimate sacrifice and lays down his life to save the world (a world that had become increasingly hostile towards him throughout the film) from a monster. His death scene is so explicitly Christological that there there is a “Pieta” moment at the end with the image of three crosses clearly in the background. In Doctor Strange, the lead character puts himself into an endless time loop to confront an ageless demon-god named Dormammu. By keeping in this time loop, Strange would be killed by Dormammu again and again, but that time loop would imprison Dormammu with him, thus preventing the destruction of Earth. When Dormammu tells Strange he will never win, Strange replies, “No, but I can lose again and again and again.” There was something wonderfully Christological about this as well. Christ defeated the power of Satan not by a showing of omnipotent power, but by submitting himself to death and “defeat” on the cross.
Even more violent and darker movies like The Magnificent Seven, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Suicide Squad showed characters who made morally bad choices but then seek redemption in self-sacrifice.
In much of the television landscape explicit references to the everyday influence of Christianity on life is often overlooked. A negative portrayal of this has been The Real O’Neils on ABC, which is based on the life of anti-Catholic activist Dan Savage and his early home life. Here Catholicism is routinely mocked.
But there are some nice subtle bright spots. The new hit show Kevin Can Wait stars the devoutly Catholic comedian Kevin James. Throughout his home on the show there are prominent displays of crucifixes and other Catholic elements. And while the show does not make a show of its religiosity, there is one thing that must be noted. In the pilot, Kevin’s daughter decides to drop out of college and get a job to support her fiancee. To prevent her from making this bad decision, Kevin says that she and her finance can move in to his home. I was very disappointed that the show was seemingly endorsing cohabitation. But then a few episodes later, his daughter complained that she didn’t understand why she had to stay in her room and her fiance had to live in the room above the garage. Hearing this was such a refreshing relief. Though the reason given to the daughter is not explicitly religious it is a rare and hopeful thing that a hit TV show on a major network does not endorse pre-marital co-habitation
There are many more things to be said about the popular culture of 2016. But for now, here are some moments that we can use to help illustrate the truth of the Gospel.
© W. L. Grayson, 2017